What's a wise, witty travel writer to do when she reaches forty and is still single? Wander the globe searching for romance and adventure, of course.
On a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, to celebrate her fortieth birthday, Laura Fraser confronts the unique trajectory of her life. Divorced and childless in her thirties, she found solace in the wanderlust that had always directed her heart—and found love and comfort in the arms of a dashing Frenchman. Their Italian affair brought her back to herself—but now she wonders if her passion for travel (and for short-lived romantic rendezvous) has deprived her of what she secretly wants most from life: a husband, a family, a home.
When her Parisian lover meets her in Oaxaca and gives her news that he’s found someone new, Laura is stunned and hurt. Now, it seems, she has nothing but her own independence for company—and, at forty, a lot more wrinkles on her face and fewer years of fertility. How is Laura going to reconcile what seem to be two opposite desires: for adventure, travel, great food, and new experiences, but also a place to call home—and a loving pair of arms to greet her there?
And so, she globe hops. What else is a travel writer to do? From Argentina to Peru, Naples to Paris, she basks in the glow of new cultures and local delicacies, always on the lookout for the “one” who might become a lifelong companion. But when a terrible incident occurs while she’s on assignment in the South Pacific, Laura suddenly finds herself more aware of her vulnerability and becomes afraid of traveling. It seems as if she might lose the very thing that has given her so much pleasure in her life, not to mention the career she has built for herself as a world traveler and chronicler of far-flung places.
Finding herself again will be both more difficult and more natural than she imagined. Ultimately, Laura realizes the most important journey she must take is an internal one. And the tale of how she reaches that place will captivate every woman who has ever yearned for a different life.
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LAURA FRASER is the author of the bestselling memoir An Italian Affair and Losing It, an investigative look at the weight-loss industry. She is a contributing editor to More magazine, and has written for Gourmet; O, The Oprah Magazine; the New York Times; AFAR; Self; Glamour; Vogue, Elle; Redbook; Tricycle; and more.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The winter sun warms the cobblestones that pave the Plaza de Armas in Oaxaca, Mexico. Heavy colonial archways shade the café tables where travelers and people watchers and expatriates come to just sit. They sip their coffees and take in the scene: small boys hawking huge bunches of colorful balloons, musicians in worn suits and perfectly ironed shirts stopping off for a shoe shine, ancient-faced Indians carrying baskets of greens on their heads. Beyond the zócalo, the Sierra Madre mountain range rings the town. There is no hurry here.
The atmosphere is relaxed, but inside I’m buzzing like one of the bees at the fruit vendor’s cart. I glance around the plaza, eyes barely resting on the balconies, the bandstand, the laurel trees, the women with dark braids and bright embroidered tops perched on the edge of the fountain. I check my watch, and it isn’t even time yet.
I’ve come to Oaxaca to mark my fortieth birthday, the passing of the decade during which I probably should have gotten married (again) and had children but did not. It didn’t work out that way. But I am going to celebrate anyway, celebrate the fact that I have the freedom to run off and be in Mexico for my birthday; celebrate with someone—a friend? lover?—for whom all of life is a celebration if you just fi nd the right spot in the sun to sit and take it all in.
I close my eyes to calm myself and sense the faint whiffs of chocolate, coffee, and chiles that perfume the thin air. When I open my eyes, I catch sight of him across the plaza: his soft denim jacket, thick silver bracelet, and chestnut curls that somehow,
still, are not gray. I jump up and wave wildly, and he sees me—everyone sees me—and he drops his old leather suitcase and opens his arms wide.
In a moment, I am pressing my face against his, breathing in his familiar smell of cigars and sea, amazed, as always, to see him again. I met this man, the Professor, by chance over breakfast in a pensione on an Italian island four years ago, right after my husband left me. Over the course of those years, meeting every so often in a different city or island, he helped mend my heart. He has his life and I have mine, but every time we’re together, the scenery seems brighter and the flavors more intense.
“Professore,” I say, breaking our embrace to search his face.
“Laura,” he says, with the soft rolling Italian pronunciation, which could also be Spanish. I like my name, and maybe myself, better in a Latin country. It’s softer.
The Professor sits at the café, orders coffee, and moves his chair close, positioning his face in the sun. He squeezes my hand.
“Bel posto,” he says. Beautiful place.
“Incantado,” I say, not sure, as often happens, if I am speaking Italian or Spanish. Enchanted.
“La bella vita continua,” he says.
He tells me that I look as good as ever, and I say he looks even better, something has changed. He seems energetic and expansive for his normally cool Parisian aesthetics professor self, less pale. He is brimming with a secret joy.
By the time we walk several blocks back to our hotel, opening the door onto a promiscuous jungle of a garden, he has spilled the whole story. He finally split up with the wife who didn’t love him, who had been in love with someone else for years. And he’s found an exciting new relationship.
We sit at a colorful little tile table on the patio outside our room, and he tells me everything. I’ve known there have been other women between our rendezvous, and there have been other men for me, too. But I’m not sure I want to hear all this. I don’t
care to know, for instance, that she is Eastern European and a professor herself and teaches comparative literature. Even less that she probably spends more on her lingerie than her clothes. While he tells his story I stare at a banana tree, counting the leaves from the bottom, struggling to be able to say, by the time I reach the clear sky above, that I am happy for him instead of sorry for myself. It’s not as if I’d ever imagined that I would end up in Paris with the Professor. Well, not very often. I did start taking French.
“I’m happy for you,” I say finally, and I’m glad, at least, to see that adds to his joy. I’m trying not to think about how ironic it is that it is the Professor—the rogue, the adventurer, the Don Juan—who is happy to be settling down, while I, the one who has
wanted a steady partner, a companion, a house and family, am sharing a hotel room with yet another man who likes me a lot and is not in love with me. If he says we can always be friends, I will lose it completely.
I turn the key to our whitewashed room, and he flops down on the carved wooden bed. I lie next to him, fi ghting tears, and he caresses my cheek. Then he strokes the small of my back.
I roll away and sit up. “Professor,” I finally say, “it’s too hard for me to be friends who tell each other everything about their love lives and still be lovers.”
“Not for me,” he says, sexy as ever.
I push his hand away and sigh. “Let’s go eat.”
I chose Oaxaca for my birthday and convinced the Professor to join me (before this new romance of his) because I happened across a book by Italo Calvino, Under the Jaguar Sun, in which each essay is devoted to one of the senses. Of all the cities in the
world where Calvino had dined—and he was Italian, mind you—for him Oaxaca embodied the ultimate fulfi llment of the sense of taste. Oaxacan cuisine, he wrote, mixes a cornucopia of native vegetables with spices and recipes brought over by the Spanish. Over the centuries, those cuisines were mingled, enhanced, and perfected by cloistered nuns (for whom cooking was one of the few earthly indulgences). Calvino called Oaxacan food “an elaborate and bold cuisine” with fl avor notes that vibrate
against one another in harmonies and dissonances to “a point of no return, an absolute possession exercised on the receptivity of all the senses.”
Ah, yes. For now, in Oaxaca, with the Professor, the food will have to do all the stirring of the senses.
And so we eat. We venture to a modest place near the hotel where a stout woman does wonders in the tiny kitchen. We try dishes that are familiar by name but taste unlike any Mexican food I’ve ever eaten. The guacamole is fresher, the tortillas sweeter and crisper. The dark sauce on the enchiladas and chiles rellenos seem
concocted from an ancient, mysterious alchemy. For the French Professor, who has never set foot in this country before and has tried Mexican food only secondhand in San Francisco when he visited me there, every taste is new.
For the next few days, we explore Oaxaca’s cuisine, trying moles in different colors each day—from Amarillo, with tomatillos and chiles, to a black, chocolaty mole negro. Each sauce requires days to prepare, and each bite is a layered, earthy, mouth-warming experience. The Professor sighs, watching me in anticipation of the pleasure of my bite, and then I sigh with him, adding the layers and spices of our history and passion to each complicated mouthful.
Between meals, we visit Monte Alban, the Zapotec ruins, climbing to the top of the pyramids to take in the wide sky and view of the town below. You can see why Hernán Cortés, who was offered anywhere in Mexico for himself after his conquest, chose the Oaxaca Valley. Then we walk all the way back to town to find Aztec soup and chicken tamales wrapped in banana leaves. We wander around the neat cobblestone streets another day, peeking into brightly painted churches, admiring cactus gardens, browsing in art galleries—and then we order Anaheim and poblano chiles sautéed with fresh cheese, onions, and crème fraiche. We tour Oaxaca’s huge food market, pass stalls with hanging pigs, fresh chocolate, stacks of cactus, and basketfuls of corn, tomatoes, onions, exotic greens, and roasted grasshoppers. Tidy piles of chiles stand as tall as I. We discover the chocolate factory and drink creamy hot chocolate, looking into each other’s eyes, bittersweet.
“Qué rico,” I say to the server as I fi nish my chocolate. How delicious.
“How do you know Spanish?” the Professor asks.
I explain that my mother brought my three older sisters and me to live in Mexico for a summer when I was ten years old. We spent that time in San Miguel de Allende, a colonial town not unlike Oaxaca, at an age when I was unafraid to roam around and try to talk to everyone. It was when I got my first taste of the wide world and felt a hunger for its endless sights and fl avors. It was also when I first understood that being able to speak another language, even the few phrases one can manage at ten, isn’t just a matter of translating familiar words; it’s a way of expanding your internal territory and venturing outside the borders of your culture and family. The fresh new sentences change the very nature of your thoughts, your usual reactions, and your sense of who you are. I learned, that summer, that I couldn’t speak a little Spanish without becoming a little Mexican. That exciting summer in San Miguel de Allende—discovering the pleasures of discovery—was when I first became a traveler.
“Intelligent mother,” says the Professor, pushing back from the table, content.
Eventually it is our last evening, and we have finished dinner down to the mescal, satiated with the place, cheeks warmed, and cheerful, for the moment, with our transition to friends.
“Happy birthday,” says the Professor, and he pulls out a necklace he bought from an Indian vendor, a lovely str...
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